Justin Trudeau’s not-so-excellent marijuana townhall

Libs' marijuana legalization tour touches down in the Big Smoke and things quickly get wacky. Message to Justin: dude, the hypocrisy is becoming a little too hard to take.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his drug czar, Scarborough MP Bill Blair, took questions at a marijuana townhall sponsored by Vice Canada and streamed live on Twitter Monday night. And thus began Justin and Bill’s cross-country tour to sell marijuana legalization to the masses. Or was it all just a set up?

A cynic might say the townhall was little more than an opportunity for the PM and Blair to make nice with the folks who stand to lose the most through legalization. You know, all those who fought to free the weed all those years now seeing licensed medpot producers (or LPs) positioned to corner the market. And not to mention all the young people who voted for the Libs and are still being busted by the cops.

While some queries from the audience managed to take the PM out of his comfort zone, by the end of the night it was also clear that marijuana activists responsible for bringing us to  legalization will have to keep the heat on for the PM to do the right thing. Which is to say, not allow LPs who’ve been making noises about opening up their own street level stores, monopolize the recreational weed market.  

Here are a few new twists, turns and contradictions that emerged in the legalization narrative.

1. Amnesty after all, or just for the rich? 

The PM has been taking heat for the amount of time and effort still being used up by cops busting young people for weed. The caseload continues to rise. Yet the PM remains adamant about the fact that, as long as marijuana is illegal, cops will continue to bust people. 

But during Monday’s town hall the PM seemed less committed to the idea – or at least, is struggling with the fact that it is marginalized communities that are bearing the brunt of the charges. 

Trudeau recounted a story he says he doesn’t tell often: how his younger brother, Michel Trudeau, who died in a skiing accident in 1998, was busted with possession after police investigating a traffic accident he was involved in, found two joints in a Sucrets box.

Of course, the younger Trudeau had the benefit of a father who happened to be the Prime Minister of Canada (unlike all those young people of colour being charged now) who could make the charges “go away,” as the current PM not-so-subtley put it. It was a startling admission of white privilege by the PM. 

Trudeau was clearly playing to the audience, but ended up digging himself into a hole. In the end, the PM was vague on what he would do to help people who might be unfairly saddled with a criminal record once the dust settles on legalization. 

But as activist marijuana Jodie Emery pointed out later, if the PM’s dad was able to make little brother’s charges go away then why not for the thousands of other Canadians who now find themselves in the same boat but can’t afford a lawyer? The hypocrisy on this one is becoming more difficult to justify.

2. Waiting game on edibles

Those in the craft cannabis community looking for assurances that edibles will be part of the legal regime, may have to wait a lot longer than anticipated.

Trudeau didn’t exactly dodge a question on the subject but suggested it will be a while before edibles enter the legal market. “We don’t yet have full confidence what a regulated regime around edibles looks like,” Trudeau said. “It’s in the future, but again we are concerned about getting it right.” 

It’s hard not to see the hand of Health Canada steering this one. That would be the same department caught napping a few months back when medpot supplies from one of Canada’s biggest producers, Mettrum, were found to contain a shitload of pesticides. What assurances could the PM give patients using for cancer that their weed would be pesticide free under legalization? None. 

3. Weird scene inside the stairwell  

Trudeau was called on his characterization of the black market in weed as run by underworld figures dealing to our kids in darkened stairwells. The view doesn’t exactly equate with the current reality. Most people get their weed from friends. The PM was sticking to his version. So was Blair when asked to explain why the feds are writing in a 14-year jail sentence for giving weed to minors into the new legislation, as harsh a penalty as you can face for the most serious terrorism-related offences. Others have pointed out that, as written, the law could apply to anyone who is say, 18, handing a joint to someone who’s 17. Blair claimed the sentence would only be levied in the most serious cases. Does such a case even exist? The hypothetical Blair offered: someone who has sold to a four-year-old 27 times. It’s unclear whether he was joking. I didn’t hear anyone laugh, but clearly the law makes no sense. Which can only mean it’s designed to make the Libs look like they’re protecting the kids when in fact they’re scaring the shit out of them.

4. Reefer madness goes roadside

Speaking of protecting the kids, the feds have hit us over the head so many times with the line that legalization is about protecting our kids that it’s gotta make you wonder why they’re legalizing weed in the first place. They claims it’s not about the money. But clearly it is.

The attitude also helps explain one of the more over the top aspects of the government’s proposed legislation: roadside drug tests, which will keep cops busier than they are now enforcing weed laws. And we thought legalizing weed would help streamline police budgets. Huh.

New drunk and drug driving laws give cops more power to stop people and demand a road side drug test (i.e.: saliva swab). 

Lawyers have raised questions about the constitutionality of the new powers, as well as the reliability of the road side tests, which have been brought into question where they’ve been used in other jurisdictions. 

Blair, citing stats showing drunk driving is the number one cause of death among young people, argued that the law’s “potential to save lives” would trump any argument on unreasonable search and seizure. 

But the science of sobriety testing has proved slippery for the courts. Not to mention expensive to prosecute. There go the cops, winning again.

5. H-bomb

While Monday’s discussion was about marijuana legalization, it’s the country’s opioid crisis that ended up attracting most of the spotlight. 

Harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd made an impassioned and reasoned plea for the PM to “be brave” and do more to stem the death toll of a cross-country opioid crisis that has claimed some 1,400 lives in B.C. alone, and some 258 in Toronto, over the last year.

The feds have pledged to open more safe injection sites and have made it easier to import prescription heroin for those in harm reduction programs.

But Trudeau says his government has no plans to move to full legalization of drugs. “We got a mandate to legalize marijuana,” Trudeau stated flatly. “We’re moving in different ways on other drugs.”

While harder drugs are not part of the discussion on legalization, it’s high time they should be – if, that is, the feds are serious about squeezing out the black market and protecting kids.

It’s not just on marijuana that the war on drugs has been a failure. And prescription meds are a way bigger problem among youth. Just ask the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which was warning of a full-blown crisis as far back as 2013. Notably, the CACP was also calling for the ticketing for simple possession of marijuana instead of wasting taxpayers’ time and money in the courts. But the Harper government would, of course, have none of it.

Also worth noting: the growing body of research suggesting marijuana may be an effective substitute for kicking crack, cocaine, opioids and possibly even alcohol. 

6. Twisted logic on dispensaries

The Libs’ charade on police raids of dispensaries came into full view. Blair somehow managed to keep a straight face when asked point blank about how the feds could possibly justify the colossal waste of time and money with legalization around the corner.

What role dispensaries will play in legalization will depend on the provinces, he said, which will be given the power to decide how it will distribute marijuana, be it through storefront operations or, as has been discussed in Ontario, LCBOs. (Trudeau mentioned the latter even though the federal task force advising the government on legalization recommended weed not be sold where booze is also sold). 

Blair left the door open to the Vancouver model, where dispensaries are allowed to operate under municipal regulation. “Sometimes local regulatory responses are better than federal law,” he said. But clearly Vancouver, where the city has had a two-decades head start dealing with regulation, will continue to be the exception to the rule. FWIW, while he was chief of Toronto police, Blair followed a policy of zero tolerance on weed.  

When Jodie Emery, whose Cannabis Culture shops have been a specific target of police raids, asked if there would be a role for activists who helped push legalization, Trudeau talked about “an opportunity for small producers.”

But those convicted of marijuana-related offenses, with the exception (maybe) of minor offenses, would currently not qualify to become licensed producers. Trudeau raised recent reports of the medpot regime being infiltrated by Hell’s Angels and other organized crime groups. Whose fault is that? Message to Justin: dude, the hypocrisy is becoming a little too hard to take.

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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